If there was a word to describe Richard Childress Racing's offseason it would be "change." This offseason has been one of dramatic turnover for the organization, with two high-profile additions and the loss of two mainstays in drivers Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Although all of the changes may not initially have the desired effect, RCR should be better positioned long-term to finally win its seventh NASCAR Cup championship.
2013 In the Rearview
As of late, the typical season for RCR involves Harvick excelling while Burton and Paul Menard languish in mediocrity. That was the case again in 2013. Harvick won four times and finished third in points--the third time he's done so in the last four years--while Menard and Burton each went winless and placed 17th and 20th, respectively.
2014 Driver Lineup
Austin Dillon (No. 3 Dow Chemical/Cheerios Chevrolet); Paul Menard (No. 27 Menards Chevrolet); Ryan Newman (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet)
A relationship that ebbed and flowed between elation and frustration is officially over after 13 seasons. Harvick has moved over to Stewart-Haas Racing, while Richard Childress has appointed his grandson, Austin Dillon, as Harvick's replacement. Dillon will drive the rebranded No. 3 car, which makes its return to Cup competition 13 years following the death of Dale Earnhardt in a last-lap crash at Daytona.
The organization also says goodbye to Jeff Burton. The veteran, who brought leadership and stability to RCR when he joined in mid-2004, will be missed, but the reality is he hadn't won a race in five years and the team needed more production. His seat in the No. 31 car will be filled by Ryan Newman, who has victories in five of the last six seasons along with a trio of Chase berths.
Biggest Offseason Question
The restitution of the No. 3 comes with much scrutiny, and will put Dillon under the microscope. But the glare of the spotlight and the pressure of having the iconic number on the side of his car is something the 23-year-old is accustomed to, having used No. 3 in both Nationwide and Truck Series competition.
Often lost in the hubbub of seeing the No. 3 back on the track is that the man driving the car is a Sprint Cup rookie. As is typical for rookies, Dillon will have his share of ups and downs in 2014, with likely more lows than highs. Significantly helping matters, however, is the group his grandfather has surrounded him with. The core of the former No. 29 team remains intact, led by crew chief Gil Martin.
Martin has proved to be one of the more underrated pit bosses in the garage. In the past four seasons he has led Harvick to 12 victories and three third-place points finishes, and his calm demeanor should pair well with a driver who at times can get excitable behind the wheel.
Long-term, RCR's prospects bode well. Newman should revive the No. 31 team, Dillon has the makings of a future star, and his younger brother, Ty Dillon, is in the pipeline and is considered by some to possess more talent than Austin.
However, RCR is not an organization constructed to win a championship in 2014. It simply doesn't have the drivers in place to do so. Austin Dillon is a rookie, and to expect anything other than moderate results out of him is unreasonable. Meanwhile, Menard has just one victory on his résumé and has never finished a year ranked higher than 16th in points.
The driver who will be counted on to carry the RCR banner this season will be Newman. While he may win a race or two and qualify for the Chase, there is nothing about his recent form that says he is a legitimate championship contender. Not since 2004 has he posted a crooked number in the win column, and although Newman's an above average driver and perennially challenges for a spot in the Chase, in a 12-year career his best points finish is sixth, which he last achieved in 2005.
There will be times in 2014 when RCR will have success. More often than not though, expect the year to be filled with growing pains as the organization builds towards bigger things down the road.